Free As In Freedom: But Whose Freedom?

from the nobody-said-it-would-be-easy dept

It would be hard to overstate the contribution of Richard Stallman to the digital world. The founding of the GNU project and the creation of the GNU General Public License laid the foundations for a wide range of free software that permeates computing from smartphones to supercomputers. Free software has also directly inspired like-minded movements based around sharing, such as open access and open content (Wikipedia, notably).

At the heart of everything Stallman does lies a desire to promote freedom, specifically the freedom of the software user, by constraining the freedom of the developer in the way the code is distributed. That's in contrast to BSD-style licenses, say, where the developer is free to place additional restrictions on the code, thus reducing the freedom of the user.

Karl Fogel on QuestionCopyright.org recently asked why Stallman doesn't grant readers of his texts the same freedoms as for software, for example to create derivatives:

Recently we had some correspondence with an Internetizen known to us only as "openuniverse" or "libreuniverse", who resigned his membership in the Free Software Foundation over Stallman's insistence on exercising his state-granted monopoly to prevent derivative works from being made of his writings and speeches.

I phrase it that way for a reason. Elsewhere, you might see it expressed as "Stallman's insistence on using his copyright to control what can be done with his works". But Stallman himself understands these issues very well, and could easily spot the unspoken assumptions in that way of putting it. No one was asking to change his works, or to attribute to him thoughts or expressions not his. No one's existing copies of Stallman's works would be changed. Rather, openuniverse wanted to make a new work, using material from one of Stallman's books -- and Stallman quashed it.
The main GNU site explains:
Works that express someone's opinion—memoirs, editorials, and so on—serve a fundamentally different purpose than works for practical use like software and documentation. Because of this, we expect them to provide recipients with a different set of permissions: just the permission to copy and distribute the work verbatim. Richard Stallman discusses this frequently in his speeches.
Here's what Stallman said:
The second class of work is works whose purpose is to say what certain people think. Talking about those people is their purpose. This includes, say, memoirs, essays of opinion, scientific papers, offers to buy and sell, catalogues of goods for sale. The whole point of those works is that they tell you what somebody thinks or what somebody saw or what somebody believes. To modify them is to misrepresent the authors; so modifying these works is not a socially useful activity. And so verbatim copying is the only thing that people really need to be allowed to do.
Nina Paley, writing on the QuestionCopyright.org site, disagrees with the idea that "Works that express someone's opinion—memoirs, editorials, and so on—serve a fundamentally different purpose than works for practical use like software and documentation":
The problem with this is that it is dead wrong. You do not know what purposes your works might serve others. You do not know how works might be found “practical” by others. To claim to understand the limits of “utility” of cultural works betrays an irrational bias toward software and against all other creative work. It is anti-Art, valuing software above the rest of culture. It says coders alone are entitled to Freedom, but everyone else can suck it. Use of -ND [No Derivatives] restrictions is an unjustifiable infringement on the freedom of others.
As with software licenses, the question once more comes down to: whose freedom are we talking about here? The freedom for creators to decide how their creations are to be used, or the freedom of users to do with those creations as they wish? The fact that Stallman straddles this divide shows there are no easy answers.

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Filed Under: copyright, free software, freedom, richard stallman


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Nov 2011 @ 6:08pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    "and thus potentially associating new or out-of-context interpretations to the person who originally made the statements."

    Crossing the street brings about the potential of getting ran over. Driving has the potential of getting into an accident. Anything has potential to do all sorts of things. That's no reason to ridiculously restrict our behavior.

    "In other words, if they "remixed" his speeches using such tiny snippets that the individual word combinations in question could have been said by anyone, there would be no problem"

    How tiny do those snippets need to be and why that tiny? Why should we limit how we can express ourselves just because our expressions might resemble something someone else said? People express similar concepts similarly.

    "but it would be impossible for RMS (or them, for that matter) to prove it was him they were re-sampling."

    To prove to the satisfaction of whom and why? How much 'proof' should one require and why?

    "However, the second they begin using well-known, or recognisable, fragments of speeches which are clearly linked to RMS, they are creating the potential for misrepresentation -- even if they don't intend to."

    Again, anything can create the 'potential' for anything else. That's no reason to add ridiculous restrictions to our behavior. So long as the person using the words of someone else and making derivatives aren't pretending to represent that other person, there is no good reason for people to be confused and almost no one would be confused. and those who would be confused are likely confused already regardless and would likely be confused no matter what. There is the potential for someone to misread my sentences to mean something entirely different than what I meant. The solution isn't for me to stop typing.

    "RMS simply thinks (correctly)"

    Because it's your opinion that it's correct, it must be.

    "that maintaining the integrity of his opinions is more important than the artistic convenience of third parties"

    No one is altering the integrity of his opinions by using words similar to his as their own, separate, opinions. That's foolish.

    "and he's right: he owes them nothing."

    and no one owes him the privilege of not using words similar to his. If he doesn't like it, he can simply avoid speaking publicly.

    "This is basically equivalent to getting mad at a kid because he'll share most of his toys, but doesn't want to loan out the baseball with his name on it, for fear that he'll get blamed when someone puts a window out with it."

    Right now I can blame you for Michael Jackson's death. People can blame anyone for anything. But if I used words similar to someone else to express my opinion and I made clear that this is not their opinion, then no judge or reasonable person is going to think twice about mis - attributing who said what. An unreasonable (mentally retarded) person could think anything based on anything anyone says. Our words shouldn't revolve around what they might think because that would be unreasonable.

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